“Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889.”

James Ensor, "Christ's Entry into Brussels in 1889" 1888, oil on canvas.
James Ensor, “Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889” 1888, oil on canvas.

If you live in Southern California, then you know (or should know!) how fortunate we are to be surrounded by excellent museums and galleries. If you haven’t made a trip up to the hill to the Getty – do it! The architecture, the art, the view, all worth it. Since I was recently at the Norton Simon, I thought it would be a good idea to highlight some of my favorite works from local museums – and that hopefully you will be inspired to go see it! This work, by James Ensor has long been a favorite of mine from the Getty Center. At 8’x14′ (and pretty much in its own room) you can’t miss it. It certainly is aggressive in scale, style and in subject. There is something violent about the way Ensor portrays this masked, mad crowd marching noisily through the city under the banner of ‘Vive la sociale’ crudely translated – ‘hurray, or live on social democracy’. The drum major in the bishops garb is ironically an atheist leader by the name of Emile Littré; a rival of Ensor’s school of thought. So he demonizes his opponents:  we are literally being stampeded by a mob of caricatures – clowns, politicians, social leaders; a bourgeois freak show forcing themselves upon modern society. It is like a demented version of Rio’s Carnival with a 19th century European twist. Although the title of the painting reveals Christ is the central figure, He is almost an afterthought – forced to the back of the marching crowd, small (albeit haloed) but insignificant. He has been relegated to the back seat – used as a puppet opposed to a Savior. The message seems clear: a warning about the debauchery and ruin of the modern age through systematization and humanism. Ensor’s motives may not be entirely pure, as the face of Jesus is said to be a self portrait of the artist – a visionary, an idealist, supporter of the little man. Bold for any man. Yet I think this work goes even further for us now more than 100 years later. The mask analogy is simple enough to understand – we all present ourselves as one thing and behave as another – but the ‘who’ of what we are representing with our mask is what scares me. They march in ‘Jesus name’ yet they follow no one. So I wonder: what “Christ’s Entry into Los Angeles in 2013” would look like?

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